The job comes through as an adult / male, hit by car, giving as the location an estate agent in the high street. We’re not far from the scene; as Frank turns into the road, we expect to catch the tail end of the jam and see flashes of blue ahead. But the traffic is flowing as smoothly as ever, and the concourses free of the usual thrill of incident. The update comes through just as we pull up outside the shop: injury longer than two days, followed by a lower grade response code. There’s no time to call Control up for a chat about this; someone is waving to us from between all the housing cards in the window.
As we cross the threshold there is a low, rumbling growl off to our right, where a man is bent over a telephone on the desk by the window. The paws and snout of a giant Alsatian poke out from between the legs of his chair. It growls again, and I can almost feel it through the floor.
The estate agent, a glossy blond efficiently packaged in scarlet blouse and grey two piece, smiles wanly and backs away to the safety of the photocopier at the rear of the shop.
‘He just - came in,’ she says, and nods towards the man.
The subject of her horror is obviously still on the phone to the call-taker. I tap him on the shoulder; he almost leaps out of the chair.
‘We’re here,’ I tell him. ‘You can hang up now.’
He lurches round and faces us from the chair. A rheumy scoop of a guy, he flicks his head as he blinks, struggling to locate the can of super strength right in front of him on the desk. His hair quivers in clumps like the last remaining feathers on a stressed fowl, and his jacket and jeans are so spattered and filthy they could have been dredged from a swamp.
‘Hello Tony,’ I say.
‘Hello Tony?’ he says, slopping the can between us. ‘Hello Tony? I’ve had an accident. I’ve been run over. And that’s all you can say, Hello Tony? I can’t walk! I’m badly injured. I was hit by a car and I can’t do anything.’
It’s always difficult to keep pace with Tony. His speech pattern is as chaotic as his appearance, lurching from one state to another, one moment the traumatised patient, the next, pleasantly conversational.
‘So, where’re you from?’ he says, crossing his legs. ‘Do I know you?’
‘Tony – I want you to slow everything down for a minute and try to concentrate. No – just listen and answer my questions. How did you get here?’
‘Well I walked, obviously. The dog’s not mine. I’m looking after her. And now this! Don’t do this to me. Please. I’m badly hurt. I can’t feel my legs.’
He dry-cries, and then pushes the can up into his nose.
‘Let’s have that,’ I say, taking it off him. I hand it to Frank, who smiles and hands it back to the woman, who takes it with two fingers and arms a mile long in the direction of the bin.
‘Tell me about the accident, Tony.’
He reaches inside his jacket and pulls out a crumpled square of yellow card.
‘Ring Sheila. There – that number. She knows what’s what.’
‘Yep, I will ring her, Tony but first I want you to tell me why we’re here. What’s all this about you being hit by a car?’
He leans forward and puts his face in his hands.
‘Why won’t you listen?’ he moans. ‘You don’t care. You’re heartless and horrible. I’ve told you everything I know. What do you want from me? Why won’t you do anything?’
‘When did you have this accident?’
‘Yesterday. The day before. I can’t remember.’
‘Did you go to hospital?’
‘Did you have the ambulance out to you?’
‘Yes. No. I don’t know. Look I just need help but you don’t seem willing to give it for some reason. I can’t walk and someone has to get the dog back home. Ring Sheila. That number – there.’
I look back at the estate agent, who has sat down at her desk and buried her head in her computer.
‘Can I use your phone?’
She looks up, nods, gives her head a little shake, and ducks back down again.
Sheila answers on the third ring. A pleasant voice, kind and calm.
‘Tony lives a couple of doors down from me,’ she says. ‘I’ve known him for years, but I must admit he’s getting worse. It’s the drinking, more than anything. Don’t worry about the accident story. It’s – how shall I put it? – one of the aspects of his problem. I expect you’ve seen him before, have you? He’s often up at the hospital. Discharges himself after an hour. I’m so sorry to waste your time.’
‘Whose dog is this, Sheila?’
‘Oh – has he got his dog, Ruth, with him?’
‘I must admit I’m more worried about the dog. We can’t take her in the ambulance with us, and he’s quite a way from home.’
‘I’d come and get her but I’m out of town working. I won’t be back till this afternoon.’
‘Never mind, Sheila. We’ll sort something out. Thanks for your help.’
I hang up.
‘Who was that?’ says Tony.
‘That was Sheila. She says this is your dog. Ruth.’
‘Of course this is my dog. I told you.’
I turn to Frank.
‘How far away are we from Mannings Crescent? I can’t remember.’
And then to the estate agent.
‘I don’t suppose you’ve got a map book handy, have you?’
She gives me a look that’s barely one degree warmer than the look she’s been giving Tony, and it’s only then that I notice the gigantic map of the city centre spread across the wall facing me.
‘Oh. Good. That’s handy.’
Frank reaches out and taps Mannings Crescent, about two miles up the road.
‘You ought to get yourself a saddle,’ he says to Tony. ‘She’s so big you could ride her home.’
‘Fine!’ he says, standing up and lurching off towards the door. ‘If that’s all you think I’m worth. Come on, Ruthie. Thanks for nothing.’
He clatters out of the door.
‘Sorry about all that,’ I say to the woman. She smiles and stands up.
‘I think he might have spilled a little of his beer over here, so watch out. If he comes back in, call the police.’
She reaches out and steadies herself on the computer screen.
Outside, we both look up and down the street. Tony is immediately apparent, sitting on a table outside a tatty pub a few doors along, waving his arms and talking energetically to a couple of drinkers who, even though they are as derelict as you could wish to see, are appalled at their new companion, and shift uncomfortably on their seats. Ruth is already stretched out on the pavement in front of them; Tony doesn’t see us go, but Ruth – she raises her dark and massive head, and watches us intently all the way back to the ambulance.